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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Crowdsourcing a Sustainable Packaging Strategy:
Learning from Unilever's Sustainable Living Lab

Companies crowdsourcing their sustainability strategies is a growing trend, and I was lucky enough to experience this first-hand last month, through a Unilever Sustainable Living Lab session, as a guest speaker discussing sustainable packaging design (interest declared: they’re a Seymourpowell client of many years).

The aim of the Lab, now in its second year, is to provide “a global online dialogue in a bid to co-create solutions to some of the world’s most pressing sustainability challenges.” Unilever called on the collective wisdom of 1000+ invite-only, sustainability thought leaders and opinion formers “to find tangible solutions to the challenges of reducing environmental impacts in the home,” looking particularly at water use and scarcity, waste, packaging & recycling, and the laundry category — tricky areas with which not just Unilever is grappling.

This 11-hour online ‘discuss-a-thon’ was split into 12 one-hour sessions, frequently running in parallel or overlapping with one another. My session, co-facilitated by Unilever VP for Design, Dennis Furness and Dr. PV Narayanan, ex-Indian Institute for Packaging, looked at solutions for ‘reducing packaging waste.’ We led with the question, “Today, consumers often expect that premium products will be packaged in a premium way. Is this necessarily so, and what can we do to break this link?”

Our session received 160+ comments in one hour from 30 contributors. Not quite a deluge, but not bad either, and I certainly found both content and process interesting enough to share here.

Learnings

First things first: Being honest, we did cover a lot of what I would consider to be standard territory and well-trodden ground — on both sustainable packaging and likely for Unilever, too. There were extensive calls to invest in refill and/or reuse options, suggestions to investigate new in-store dispensing systems, recommendations to explore new technology such as dissolvable packaging, and some useful tips on looking at country-based systems in which governments —notably in Germany and Scandinavia — had stepped in and mandated national sustainable packaging systems and recycling infrastructure. Not earth shattering, though useful reminders for things that Unilever can and should have on its radar going forward.

Beyond that, three themes caught my eye:

Looking back, the real value of the lab will be between — not just within — sessions, and I would expect some fascinating sustainable packaging crossover with other discussions. For example, two sessions on ‘A recycling revolution?’ and a further one on packaging reduction debated ‘recycling infrastructure’ and ‘ways and incentives to get people recycling more.’ This is the sort of joined-up thinking we really need — that sustainable packaging solutions will be multi-dimensional — and a quick glance at the Lab report out on 16th May does show just these thematic links being made, which is encouraging.

A second thread tackled the ‘mechanisms of better design,’ centred on the need to design packaging better in the first place to avoid waste — an idea obviously close to my heart. Participants pointed out many quite practical obstacles to that happening. For example, poor packaging design briefing, in which sustainability rarely if ever appears when handed to packaging designers; a lack of sustainability awareness, know-how and inspiration for packaging designers. Unilever could really use its scale and reach to tackle some of these issues and potentially lead the industry, too.

Finally, it came as rather a surprise to me that our discussion rarely centred on the question we set! When we did drift back to our ‘premiumisation dilemma,’ some useful thoughts did emerge. These included a call to ‘decouple’ packaging from premium perceptions — thus getting people to think less is worth paying more for, plus the question of how Unilever could internally break out of the marketing model in which ‘more means more’ and marketers constantly add functions, benefits, materials, impacts, etc.

Take-outs

I drew a number of conclusions from the session about crowdsourcing and sustainable packaging alike. Given that ‘sustainability in the home’ contains such seriously big challenges, it’s great to see companies open up on these issues, rather than discussing them behind closed doors. I thought Unilever participants engaged in the real issues, rather than guarding themselves behind public relations, making the process more authentic.

That said, I’m not sure the methodology and format used are entirely right for this kind of dialogue, or were entirely successful on the day either. An hour doesn’t allow much depth or meaning to such heavyweight discussions, leaving only a shallow dive into these pretty thorny issues needing more thorough examination. Also, call me a digital luddite but the breakneck speed of questions, comments, replies and ‘likes’ streaming through the online platform left any red-thread really quite hard to follow. I do wonder what value such a rapid-fire approach to sustainable packaging dilemmas might bring to a company such as Unilever, which I know is already doing quite a lot on these issues. Clearly, too, the question is everything, and I’d recommend more tightly pinning down our ‘premiumisation’ question in order to get more from the one hour.

So while you couldn’t crowdsource an entire sustainable packaging strategy from our session, it was certainly an interesting experience and provided some useful nuggets and insights, too. Well done, Unilever, for opening up in this way — lets see more, and hopefully more in-depth, too.

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